Here’s an uncontroversial example of what student-centered teaching is not: you, the teacher, have some very important information to deliver to students about your subject matter, and it’s simply not your concern how students feel about it; whether it interests them; or whether they see why it’s relevant to their lives. This is what you’re supposed to learn, so learn it.
Maybe I had a few decent ones before my memory serves me, but the above pretty much describes every teacher I ever had in the K-12 public school system I attended in that pile of snow called Buffalo, New York before I went to college. This experience put me on intimate terms with the concept of alienation at a very young age.
A good deal of my work as a librarian comes out of this personal experience, and, therefore, attempts to approach information literacy instruction from a student-centered perspective. Now, of course, very few people will disagree with the claim that you should be a student-centered educator. But, I’ve found that lots of educators – myself included – have a hard time articulating what it means, exactly, to be student-centered, beyond something like “Well, it involves putting students first!”
Since I’ll be leading a discussion touching on this topic at ALA Mid-winter, I thought it’d be a good time to get my thoughts in order. So here it is, my two cents about what it means to be a student-centered educator …
To start at the beginning, being a student-centered educator is going to at least mean that we take the perspective of the student into account along with the perspective of the educator. This gets rid of the straw man that would dictate that student-centered pedagogy means we just let students run wild and do whatever they want. Had my teachers taken at least some of my feelings about my own educational experience as valid, the statement I made at the outset about controlling teacher behaviors would lose much of its bite. The essential factor that made the example in the first paragraph not student-centered was precisely the lack of concern for the student’s perspective. So here, then, is perhaps the main principle involved in begin a student-centered educator:
the students’ perspective matters in the classroom.
One thing that follows from this is that educators must not only have knowledge of certain content, but must also be certain kinds of people: they must have a capacity for empathy, and a sincere desire to understand the inner world of their students. Otherwise, it’s not possible to approach the educational experience from the student’s point of view. Already we’ve gone beyond the conception of the teacher as an expert dictating content to students. Already the educator seems like more of a partner with their students, rather a controlling arbiter of knowledge. And all that’s been said is that when thinking about organizing the classroom experience, the perspective of the student should be considered.
This point is made nicely by the educational psychologist Johnmarshall Reeve in his paper “Why Teachers Adopt a Controlling Motivating Style Toward Students and How They Can Become More Autonomy Supportive.” He writes that
It may be helpful to affirm the truism that both students’ and teachers’ perspectives are important and need to be pursued … [Thus, student-centered teaching] can be incorporated into a highly structured approach to instruction in which teachers plan and monitor the goals they have for their students’ learning. It is this combination of high-structure and high autonomy support that best respects both teachers’ and students’ perspectives.
Reeve, p. 171.
Reeve goes on to articulate some specific differences between what he calls a controlling teaching style vs. an autonomy supportive – or student-centered style. Whereas controlling teachers pressure students to think, feel, or behave in a certain way, student-centered educators attempt to “identify, nurture, and develop students’ inner motivational resources (159).” To put it more colloquially, controlling teachers think something like, this is what it’s important for you to learn, so learn it! Student-centered teachers, on the other hand, start with where the students are at – and attempt to organize the learning environment accordingly.
One concrete thing this means is that student centered educators figure out what students’ authentic interests, values, and goals are – and attempt to organize instruction around those goals. When student-centered teachers suspect low motivation in their students, they figure out how to connect the material to students on a more personal level. So, to put it in terms I’m wont to use, student-centered teaching is authentic: it involves the educator genuinely connecting with their students. It involves a sincere attempt to understand who they are, and to tailor instruction accordingly. Educational psychologists Assor, Kaplan, and Roth go as far as to say that
[T]he primary task of the teacher is to try to understand their students’ authentic interests and goals, and then help students to understand the connection between their personal goals and interests and schoolwork. In addition, teachers may also find or develop tasks that fit their students’ interests. When students do not have clear personal interests and goals, teachers may assist them in developing such interests and goals.
Assor, A., Kaplan, H., & Roth, G. (2002). Choice is Good, but Relevance is Excellent: Enhancing and Suppressing Teacher Behaviors Predicting Students’ Engagement in Schoolwork. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 72, 261–278.
Reeve notes a second important feature of student-centered teaching: explaining why a classroom exercise is worth it to the students (169). This is something I’ve always tried to do for my students, in libraries and in philosophy. I take it that if I can’t explain why something I’m doing is directly relevant to them, I’ve failed.
Here’s how Reeve puts it:
Providing explanatory rationales and taking the students’ perspective go hand in hand because students’ internalization experience and activity engagements reflect not only the quality of the teacher’s rationales but also the extent to which teachers help raise students’ awareness of how the activity at hand connects to students’’ existing goals, values, needs, and personal strivings.
Lastly, Reeve argues that autonomy supportive, student-centered educators acknowledge and accept students’ expressions of negative affect. They don’t say stuff like “Quit your complaining and just get the work done”; instead, they give students a voice and some say over their classroom experience. (170).
Reeve goes into much more detail about these issues – and, importantly, about why most teachers end up adopting a controlling teaching style in the classroom. If there’s one article I think every person who sets foot in a classroom should read, it’d be this one. But before I end, there’s one final think I think that’s worth addressing, namely, why should you adopt a student-centered perspective? What’s the advantage?
Well, research shows that students learn better in a student-centered environment: it contributes to their conceptual understanding, deep processing, active processing, and, importantly, self-regulation strategies. They also do better in their coursework as measured by grades, and do better on standardized tests.
Additionally, it leads to increases in motivation, engagement, persistence, school retention, self-esteem, self-worth, and student creativity (for an overview see Reeve, p. 162).
This is why I think a student-centered style is important, and why it’s always important to check whether you’ve lapsed into a more controlling mind-frame.
So, in short, I think that student-centered teaching involves understanding how students learn and tailoring our instruction accordingly. This means both that we figure out, cognitively, how students best process information, and think of teaching strategies for teaching in ways that support retention and transfer and, also, we figure out what helps motivate students in the classroom – the same thing that motivates anyone else, anywhere: genuine self-expression and having a say over their lives.